Rob Christensen

NC’s dark impeachment history

N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall
N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall N&O

When a state House committee took the first steps toward an impeachment inquiry of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall last week, it opened the door into a dark, partisan corridor of North Carolina history.

Impeachment has a disreputable history in Tar Heel politics, having been used by white supremacists to help suppress black participation in the electoral process.

Impeachment was used to oust Republican Gov. William W. Holden in 1872, making him the first governor in American history to be impeached, convicted and removed from office. In 1901, the state House voted to impeach two Republican state Supreme Court justices, but after a 14-day trial the Senate voted to acquit. In both cases the subtext was race.

The subject of impeachment arose last week when a Republican-dominated state House committee approved a resolution to see if impeachment proceedings are warranted against Marshall, a Democrat.

It is hard to know how seriously to take the impeachment push.

Is this the effort of one young, conservative firebrand, Rep. Chris Millis, a civil engineer from Hampstead, or does it have more legs than that?

Millis charges that Marshall’s office illegally commissioned 320 noncitizens as notaries over nine years. Marshall responded that this was a political attack. Her office said that a U.S. Supreme Court decision made it improper to make citizenship a requirement to receive notary commissions.

The idea of impeaching a public official over an interpretation of who is eligible to be a notary may seem like small potatoes.

But consider what the Democrats tried in 1901. After winning control of the legislature in 1898 and the governorship in 1900 by running two vicious white supremacy campaigns, the Democrats were preparing to pass laws both disenfranching black voters and imposing Jim Crow laws.

But they still didn’t have control of the courts and they were worried their handiwork might be overturned by Republican judges. So they brought impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice David M. Furches and Associate Justice Robert M. Douglas, both Republicans, with the idea of replacing them with friendly Democratic judges.

The impeachment trial involved a trumped-up technicality. The articles of impeachment argued that the justices had unconstitutionally ordered the state treasurer and state auditor to pay $851.15 to the state inspector of shellfish. That was enough for the House to vote to impeach. But motions to impeach failed in the less partisan Senate by votes of 23-27, 24-6, 25-25, and 16-34.

Gov. Holden was not so lucky.

Holden, a Reconstruction-era governor, was in office while the Ku Klux Klan was conducting a reign of terror -- particularly in the Piedmont counties of Alamance, Caswell, Guilford and Orange where there was fear that a sizable white Republican population would win control with black Republican support.

The night-riding between 1868 and 1870 resulted in at least 22 whites and 54 blacks being whipped in Alamance County alone.

Alonzo Corliss, a white man from New Jersey who opened a Quaker school for blacks in Mebane, made the mistake of taking a black person to a white church. Corliss was given 30 lashes by the KKK, dragged into the woods, and had half of his head shaved, and was blackened with tar. Another northerner, a “Mr. Meder,” who taught whites at his school during the day and blacks during the evening, had his school torched. Caswell Holt, the first black deputy in Alamance County, was beaten and shot.

Shocked by the vigilantism, the Republican legislature passed a law giving the governor the power to declare a county to be in a state of insurrection and to call upon the militia if local authorities cannot protect its citizens. (Many local law enforcement officials were part of the Klan.)

The Klan’s reaction was to flaunt the legislature and the governor.

Wyatt Outlaw, a Graham town councilman and the leading black figure in Alamance County, was abducted from his home and lynched in the courthouse square, with this warning pinned to his body: “Beware, ye guilty, both black and white.”

Republican state Sen. John W. Stephens, a key ally of the governor, attended a Conservative Party (Democrats) convention in the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville. While taking notes on the convention, he was lured to the basement where he was overpowered by a group of assassins, strangled with a noose and stabbed to death.

Holden said he believed the Klan had 40,000 members in North Carolina, had committed 25 murders and carried out hundreds of cases of scourging and whipping.

Holden declared martial law in Alamance and Caswell Counties and brought in Col. George W. Kirk, a former Union guerrilla fighter from Tennessee with the nickname of “Cut-throat Kirk,” with 670 men from Union strongholds in the west to put down the rebellion. The governor suspended habeas corpus, declaring Alamance and Caswell Counties to be in a state of “insurrection.”

Kirk made more than 182 arrests. After two weeks of incarceration, a federal judge ordered the men released because they had been held without due process. President Ulysses S. Grant’s attorney general failed to back up Holden, ruling that his legal position was unsustainable.

Holden’s use of military force was a political gamble that backfired. Highly unpopular, the Democrats used the issue to win control of the legislature in 1872.

Soon thereafter, the Democratic legislature impeached Holden for abusing power and the Senate convicted him by a 36-13 vote after a seven-day trial.

In 2011, the North Carolina Senate, back in Republican hands, granted Holden a posthumous pardon by a 48-0 vote.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532;